Ceremony Of Work
© Copyright 2018 by Paul Dominic
It is the story of my Mother in her maternal and professional career that lasted almost simultaneously from her first delivery till some three years after her ninth and last. It is the story of her twofold work at home and at school ‘while there went those years and years by of world without event’ (Gerard Manley Hopkins). It is her story as a heroine for whom life and work were ‘not so much a battle but a surrender to the truth’, yes, the truth of situations of life in the divine milieu.
Happiness is activity.
Social expectations, particularly within the family, mean that women’s default mode of relating is of self-sacrifice. This is a noble way to live but only if it is chosen, not enforced.
A mother that does not work is unthinkable! When asked whether their mothers are working most people would answer no. They mean their mothers do not have a job outside home. They betray thus their set way of thinking that does not seem to take account of all that their mothers do, and have to do, and cannot but do, and none else will. They hardly have a thought about the 24-hour unpaid work of mothers inside the four walls of their home! Bernard Shaw had the sensitivity to say long ago: ‘Because there is nothing to sell, there is a very general disposition to regard a married woman’s work as no work at all, and to take it as a matter of course that she should not be paid for it.’1
Besides that common lot of all good mothers for ‘years and years of world without event’ (Gerard Manley Hopkins) some mothers may work in their own fields while many may labour in another’s farm, not to speak of poor, unskilled, urban mothers employed part time in another house! And, of course, there is a growing woman-force at work in other fields.
My own Mother worked full time inside and outside home. She was a bit like modern moms; of them a second-grade child said rightly: ‘Moms work at work and work at home and dads just go to work at work.’ At once a homemaker and breadwinner, my Mother was an amazing woman, even a superwoman, though she would have been the last person to use such terms. “How did she manage with nine children?” Sophia, a granddaughter of hers, wondered aloud one evening, unable to cope with her two boys.
Indispensable work: charming or boring?
As I reminisce about the scene at home many familiar sights, sounds and smells of home waft through my nostalgic reverie. Her work inside covered every home chore: cooking, cleaning, drawing water at the public well, and carrying it home in a couple of pots in scurried steps, washing, mending, sweeping, attending to children’s needs, minding the husband’s expectations, and so on. Her mother was with us and she was a great help, of course. But it was my Mother who was responsible for housekeeping.
Nothing was easy seventy-odd years ago, especially in the matter of cooking. If there was no oven-ready stuff in those days that was no big hardship; but cooking was. To cook you needed a fire, and lighting a fire was a trial indeed. Often enough I had seen the ordeal of my Mother starting the fire in a way that goes back centuries ago all over the world.2 It was daunting especially in the rainy season when dry faggot would be hard to get and, if available, costly. Anyway, she would strike a matchstick, and hold the burning match close to the few small splinters covered with some pieces of waste paper on the top. She would then blow air through a long blow tube to coax the flame out of any flickering in the freshly forming embers. In the best of circumstances, the firewood would catch fire and burn, and in the worst of circumstances the process had to be repeated over a few minutes to steady the spluttering, erratic, almost taunting flame. How often an occasional flame licked at the smoking timbers, dying out to puff up again which, when found fanning into a flame, signalled not a small relief but real victory. At times with teary burning eyes, caused by the choking smoke of the stubborn wood that would not burn in spite of a few drops of kerosene sprinkled on it, my Mother would ask me, one of the bigger kids, to try blowing from my little lungs and ignite the fire! Once the reluctant flame was fanned enough to be steady and dancing, the rest of cooking was almost play, even when the little ones began fussing over their hunger and made their presence felt by their cry, mostly loving and pressing but at times petulant. The play ended as a bit of a natural miracle: a matter of transforming, even transubstantiating3 the raw products of God’s earth into food to feed God’s children.
Another hard chore was fetching drinking water, from quite a distance of ten minutes’ walk towards the fields away from the residential area. It was fun for me to go with her to the well swinging the bucket used for drawing water. Returning was quite a task for both of us: she would walk fast, balancing a pot of water on the head and holding another in the crook of her arm; and I would carry the bucket of water panting, and try to keep pace with her brisk steps, though not matching her lithe movement.
There were many more minutiae of daily chores that were part and parcel of a housewife and mother without a domestic help. They were never finished because they were ever recurring needs; while not a day was free of them, any day there could be emergencies. I may sum up those nameless and endless acts by what an elderly mother of a 50-year old American priest, Dennis, remarked after a good lunch together at Parker near Denver: ‘Back to the salt-mine!’ Soon after she said those words she made a gesture of regret; she held her hand to her mouth as if she could withdraw them. I did not know what the words meant; so, she explained she had to go and do the washing of the dishes. The idiomatic expression ‘back to the salt-mines’ meant that one has to begin one’s hard work again, willy-nilly. If all miners had very hard work on their hands, especially indispensable was that of the salt miners. Much more so was the work of all mothers worth the salt, and so of my Mother too! Only all the more indispensable and incomparable, it was a matter of ‘composing a life’.4
Was that the reason that women were exempt from the Sabbath law as they were not explicitly included in the list of those bound to observe it (Ex 20:10)? Anyway, from this angle Simone de Beauvoir was far off the tangent when she wrote: ‘Few tasks are more like torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled; the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day, day after day.’
Ceremony of work
Though weighed down by all such work my Mother never grudged it; rather she welcomed it all knowingly. With her sense of what was needed at any given moment, she could engage in it without any compulsion. With the grace of ‘living in the present moment’ she came thus to be molded by the discipline of it all and proved to be made of sterner stuff.
When anyone does eagerly what needs to be done one rests in it without having to find a reason for it. For my Mother the work had in itself a certain raison d’être, as women of her kind have known.
And (so) there was rapture, of a decent kind,
In making mean and ugly objects fair:
Soft-sooted kettle-bottoms, that had been
Time after time set in above the fire,
Faucets, and candlesticks, corroded green,
To mine again from quarry; …
Polish the stove till you could see your face,
And after nightfall rear an aching back
In a changed kitchen, bright as a new pin.5
My Mother went about her work with such poetic grace that I like to view her performance as a ceremony—not unlike the tea ceremony, only more prolonged and that daily—transforming her routine work into a simple art of communion with her loved ones. It was a natural way of concentrating her energies of love on achieving a certain perfection by means of apparently insignificant tasks.
This stood her in good stead when she had to face the test of added dose of work at the time when we moved back from Udumalpet to settle down in native Dindigul. When we returned we stayed for a time with the extended household of my grandparents in their village. Till we joined them an aunt shouldered the daily running of the family. But, given our presence, she seemed to be blissfully relieved of her responsibility for whatever reason; and my Mother had to make up for all the work left undone. She bore the whole brunt besides going to teach in a school about 20 minutes’ walk from home. Fortunately for her such a state of affairs lasted only some three months.
Fidelity to lifework with little rest
After that period of extra labour for my Mother involving two families, we settled down separately renting a house nearer the town. Still, however, as a mother’s work never decreases and, further, as the size of our family increased with the arrival of a sibling every two years or so, my Mother never knew any cessation in her whirling wheel of working! As her hard times seemed never ending she endured them to her last breath!
It would be nothing surprising if such ‘mining’ work at home of minding many a need of many a ward of an ever-growing family told upon my Mother. Johnny, the second last in the family, remembers her mostly as sickly and visiting the hospital often.
Though I had no knowledge of her indispositions during my 16-year stay at home (after which I left home on my spiritual career), I remember there were occasions when she would complain of pain in her neck and ask me to massage it. I would readily and willingly carry out her simple wish. Tending her neck and feeling a twist or catch in a nerve I would move my teen-age thumbs alternately applying pressure on the painful spot just as she instructed me to straighten it. I did my best bringing to my momentary physiotherapeutic task whatever childish expertise of love I had.
Another portrait of her tiredness was captured in the complementary picture of her afternoon rest on Sundays after the grind that each of the six previous days had been. I used to contemplate her brief, beauteous repose especially when asked to fan her in summer days. A few moments before she fell asleep she would gently murmur, ‘Pōdhumpā (Enough, son).’ I wonder if Jesus had a similar experience of mutual kindness! Anyway, the Welsh poet, Francis Quarles (1592-1644), brought to life the image of Jesus ‘smiling upon his smiling mother’s face’.
A word about her work as a wife would reveal the extent of her burden. Though God-fearing my Father was not aware of his patriarchal mind-set, living at a time when the idea of patriarchal society was not even mentioned in his surroundings. It is likely then that he would have made certain demands on Mother’s service that would have cost her much in the long run.
Thus, her mode of existence, as wife and mother, deprived her of the required rest essential for living—a hard lot of the majority population that politicians like J. F. Kennedy missed woefully enough to remark, ‘Our existence deprives us of minimum of physical activity essential for living.’
Creative motherhood ennobling banal work
Besides thus exercising her wifely and motherly functions my Mother was a full-time teacher. My Father too was in the teaching profession, with no higher qualification than hers during the first decade of their life together. When anyone asked my Father’s name I would answer proudly, ‘Ārōkiam Teacher.’ But I don’t remember answering in the same way in relation to my Mother. In the patriarchal society in which we lived, perhaps, no one asked the mother’s name. Anyway, coming to think of it, I wonder if I associated the Father’s image with his job and the Mother’s with her motherhood even if both had the same kind of job. Did I follow the culture around that I had imbibed, albeit unknowingly, maximizing male work while minimizing female task?
Anyway, while the negative view has to be acknowledged and shelved the positive aspect too has to be saved and nurtured! The mother has got to be a mother first and foremost, whatever else she happens to be or wants to be as an individual person with a legitimate aspiration. I am convinced that this was a primary reason for my Mother to strike out differently from my Father, aiming at higher qualification.
There is an inestimable value of being a mother pure and simple, unadorned by any professional glory. As Martin Luther King, Jr, once famously said:
If a man is called to be street sweeper, he
streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music,
or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that
all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a
great street sweeper who did his job well!
How much more then should a mother be nothing other than a mother, at least as long her children need mothering. Hers is a creativity of love, and no other creativity, whether in art or thought, can equal that.6
Hers is also a heroic way of living and loving; for the way of the heroine or hero ‘is not so much a battle but a surrender to the truth’,7 yes, first and foremost, the truth of situations of life. ‘Surely, unless you see the truth of what you do and are guided by that truth, your life becomes a hideous mess.’8 Part of this mess reaches beyond home; for, in the absence of valuation of mothering at home, we shall fail woefully in honoring mothering outside home, for example in nature, only to face ecological desecration. So, one can only agree heartily with the question raised by Amrit Sadhana: ‘Do we respect this process of mothering wherever we find it – whether in nature, in earth, or in the whole of creation? Do we revere the protective womb of life around us and are (we) sensitive not to hurt in any way?’9
Part of mothering that knows no withering concerns teaching one’s children! Imagine the learned way a highly educated mother in a city taught her clever first-grade child. The result was that he who had been at the top in the beginning managed to reach the bottom. Talking to the boy the sensible Principal, Sister Zita, discovered that his mother made him work at his books soon after returning from school while the neighboring children were happily playing. Speaking to the mother the Principal found the complaint to be true and taught the mother the way to teach her child, leaving him enough time to play! Fortunately, the advice was heeded and the mother rejoiced to see her son once again shining in his studies.
My Mother had not to learn or unlearn like the college-educated mother. She let us play enough outside to relax ourselves enough. Playing had its own lessons to teach surely. Often enough she would play with us indoor games like dhāyam (a kind of board game) or snakes and ladders. Not like the psychologist Scott Peck, who with all his expertise of psychology, would play a game of chess with his daughter! He himself tells an incident when, consciously obliging to play with her at her repeated request, he was all in the game—with the deliberate aim of winning the game. To make his moves he took much time—only to annoy the girl much. Even when she grumbled at him about it he kept to his own pace till at one moment she left the game crying, ‘I give up!’ and ran away to her room! My Mother played not thus, thanks to her not knowing much like Scott. As I remember, she would play in a normal, natural way not to win but to draw us into the game! I remember too that one or the other of us losers would become gloomy; and a word from the winner crowing about his victory was enough to make the sulking, sullen loser cry. Then she would coo soothingly, ‘You are not to cry, dear; we play dhāyam only to relax!’
On Sundays and holidays, we would go in the forenoon for a swim in the big, deep well in the farm where we were living in a rented house. The holiday lunch necessarily better than usual would be ready and we would be still jumping, diving and playing in the water. She would call us more than once; she was not so much annoyed when we did not get out immediately, for she knew we were enjoying ourselves. When we finally came for lunch with a good appetite it did her heart good to see us eat happily and heartily whatever was served though not perhaps as much as we wanted (as one once remarked later)! That was a darling mother who knew the time to let us play and enjoy ourselves. Though she could not multiply loaves and dishes, she knew to banish all our temptation to boredom.
Our Mother knew the simple working principle: ‘Play while you play; and work while you work!’ And so, she taught us to work at our study too. Some of us would give time to study whether told or not. To others who needed to be told she would expressly give a call, and a firm, even stern, call if the first one was not complied with! She would sit with us and program our little minds in our initial steps of learning the three R’s. The act of learning was more important for her than the result. Once when I went with her and her colleague to a cloth shop where she used to buy clothes the merchant asked me to calculate the amount owed to him. Getting a piece of paper and pencil I made my big calculation and ended in a mistake. If I felt awkward failing the shopkeeper’s challenge she stepped in gently to remove my embarrassment and restored my confidence while casually pointing out where my sum had gone wrong! Years later when she found me grieving over my failure to reach my target she knew what was important for me to do. She alone advised me not to grieve too much and spoil my health. That health is more important than any accomplishment I needed to learn from her who had given me birth and breath in the first place.
Some years ago, I met an old student of my Mother, when still unmarried. To my eager enquiry about her recollection of my Mother she replied that she had taught them kōlāttam (a group game of girls holding and striking adorned sticks while singing and moving rhythmically)! That pleased me much: the old teacher remembered for play and enjoyment! Just the opposite of what happened to me when an old student of mine, who expected me to remember him, after some twenty years, for my regular beating of him.
Once during a time of her advanced pregnancy with my sister Chinnār I accompanied my Mother to a new school. One recollection of that time concerns her teaching outside class. During the lunch interval, she was sitting with a small girl and removing head lice. She could not help remarking, ‘See how many lice are crawling over this poor child!’ Did she notice that distressing sight during the class? Did she come to her rescue during the interval in simple piteous concern for a hapless child, apparently much uncared for? Or, was she longing for a girl child without knowing she was carrying one in her womb? Or, was she spontaneously living what an Indian actress Kajol reflected on her own motherhood at a time of short filming: ‘Motherhood is an amazing feeling and if you get to relive those special moments while working, it works as an icing on the cake’?
The last word about my Mother’s teaching job cannot but be the enormous amount of energy spent. The proverbial rule in India has been: the lower the classes the lesser the salary but the greater the workload in terms of time and energy. I wonder if my Mother’s career of teaching small tots over a period of thirty-odd years did not take its toll on her and quench her voice as she turned just fifty!
Her teaching career was certainly more than a matter of remuneration. It offered her a wider companionship surely and a mark of her social identity, and contributed to the growth of her self-confidence.10 This however was only one side of the coin; the other side was ‘primarily vexation and annoyance’ resembling the work of Jesus at Nazareth, ‘generally not very interesting ... (being) more a series of rather banal vexations,’ as Karl Rahner remarked.11 If that was part of the experience of my Mother she had her moments that enabled her to live moment to moment with hope.
Career: homely versus professional
How did my Mother combine her works as a mother and teacher for so long and cope with all the unavoidable vexation and annoyance? That question did not exercise the minds of people in 1940s but it cannot be brushed aside today. The first answer definitely is that she knew to exercise the virtue of necessity. Another is that she had the habit of living one day at a time. Further, I think she had a spontaneous sense of tackling the issues that necessarily arose in conflicting situations and developed her knack of survival. In this respect I compared certain suggestions made by a psychiatrist12 and surprisingly found them reflected in my Mother’s stance and practice. She understood her reasons and compulsions for working. So, she made no apology for her teaching profession. However, as a mother who happened to be a teacher she knew her priorities, and accordingly set them in order each day for implementation, using her common sense more than anything else. At the same time, she kept herself free and flexible in adhering to the set priorities. Accordingly, without absolutizing them, she learnt to judge the most important thing at any given moment; and developed her art of playing it by ear!
Within the home she spent quality time with
children. At the same time, she entrusted us, at least some of us,
with small responsibilities like sweeping, cleaning, grinding, etc.,
appropriate to our age and size. In that way she made us feel needed
by her in some real way and also provided a sign of our growing. In
so exercising herself wisely she counted on my Father’s
cooperation with a certain pride in his headship.
1The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (New Brunswick / London: Transaction Publishers, 1928), 25.
2Here is an interesting account of that from a 4th century Desert Mother, Amma Syncletica, in her illustration of the struggle and joy of coming near God: “It is just like building a fire: at first it is smoky and your eyes water, but later you get the desired result. Thus we sought to light the divine fire in ourselves with tears and effort.” See Yushi Nomura, Desert Wisdom (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1983), p. 26.
3See Catherine de Hueck Doherty (the foundress of Friendship House), The People of the Towel and the Water (Denville, New Jersey: Dimension Books, 1978), p. 84.
4Mary Catherine Bateson, Composition of a Life (New York: Penguin Books/Plume, 1990).
5Edna St. Vincent Millay, Collected Sonnets (N.Y.: Washington Square Press, 1959), p. 52.
6In her novel Gaudy Night Dorothy Sayers brings out the truth that though brilliant women can excel in art and thought as much as brilliant men few women believe that such creativity equals that of motherhood. See Ronda Chervin, Feminine, Free and Faithful (Steubenville, Ohio: Franciscan Univ. Press, 1995), pp. 29-30.
7Mark Bryan, Codes of Love (New York: Pocket Books, 1999), p. 230.
8J. Krishnamurti, This Matter of Culture (Madras: Krishnamurti Foundation India, 1992), p. 42.
9Deccan Chronicle, 6 May 2011, p. 11.
10See Jack Dominian, Make or Break (London: SPCK, 1984), p. 24.
11Spiritual Exercises (London & Melbourne, Sheed & Ward, 1967), p. 158.
12See Helen de Rosis, Women and Anxiety (New York: Delacorte Press, 1979), pp. 178-179.
A septuagenarian, with a stint of lecturing in Math till 1980, he still keeps doing what he has been doing for about 40 years: helping people in their living, both psychologically and spiritually, through formal programs of retreats and conferences and also informal conversations and accompaniments. He has also been engaged in writing. He has published articles on spirituality and psychology in Indian and American and British journals. He has also written books (on spirituality, psychology, the last of which was GOD OF THE EXERCISES published in India in 2016, and, a year later, in Britain.